20th Century Boys: 01

There were a couple of different factors I detected here early on that differentiated this from most manga I’ve read and immediately made me like it. First off, it didn’t seem silly or like it was aimed solely at a demographic that was younger than me by 20 years. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its comedic moments, especially with some verbal sleights of hand like the introduction of the female dog handler – as just one example – which are truly organically funny, but it has heaping doses of gravitas, mystery, and poignant moments to balance it all out.

As far as characterization goes, I also really appreciated this strong sense of empathy for their fellow man that drives a lot of the emotional arcs. This first chunk of the story firmly plants itself as these mysterious connections begin to form between the childhood symbol, “Donkey’s” apparent demise, the influx of The Rolling Stones and the failed music aspirations, flashes back and sideways, and generally asks if it’s possible to construct our own self-fulfilling prophecy for the future. It’s unique and I’m intrigued. I also like how the pieces of the mystery are very slowly doled out for consumption, yet there is always a foreboding and ominous sense of danger present.

I’m not sure how old scribe Naoki Urasawa is, but I’d guess he was influenced by post-WWII reconstructionism in Japan, because the theme of a social entity defining its own destiny seems to be front and center. The overlay of benchmark achievements that defined the 20th Century, like the moon landing, inevitably beg the question as to what acts will inform the 21st Century for posterity. I guess I’m starting to see why this has been called the Japanese equivalent of Watchmen, because of all the layered elements being conducted simultaneously.

Visually, the figures are a little… and I hate this term, but, “cartoony” for me at times, yet there’s plenty of other glorious art to get distracted by. The backgrounds the figures inhabit are very realistic, and some of the shot compositions, like the silhouetted group near the lake, bristle with a sense of iconic importance. It was hard for me not to get flashbacks to some of the defining moments with the kids in Stand By Me when I saw those silhouettes.

There’s also an authenticity to Urasawa’s dialogue, with people speaking, and reacting to each other, in a way that plays realistic, and not artificial, staged, or contrived. Colloquial names like “Jiji Baba,” which I think loosely translates to “Old Man Granny,” are exactly the types of things that people concoct off the cuff.

The most important distinction between this and most comics I consume, and maybe this is true of most manga for all I know – it certainly holds true for Blade of the Immortal, which I’m quite familiar with – is that the pace is wildly different. 20th Century Boys really does operate in a long form storytelling mode, hell, we’re nearly 50 pages into the narrative before the symbol that fuels so much of the story is even really revealed. It allows the story to unfold more naturally, so that every nook and cranny of the characters’ lives is explored. The large mystery is then mined from the realism and details of every day life. It’s like there’s this 80/20 split between the relatively mundane and the eventual clues that set the mysterious plot into motion. This patient balance makes the fantastical all the more believable because it’s so rooted in the faux reality presented.

Speaking of long form storytelling, 20th Century Boys is currently on Volume 14(?) and I believe it’s set to go to Volume 24(?) of these digest sized installments. At this point, I’ve picked up Volumes 01 to 11, and am planning on jotting some ideas down here as I sporadically read the books and collect my thoughts. I don’t feel like they’re proper “reviews” per se because I’m really not even summarizing the plot, and am kinda’ assuming that people interested enough to read the review would probably have already read a series of books that’s been out and started for a while, so this’ll just be my general impressions.


At 11:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I’d guess he was influenced by post-WWII reconstructionism in Japan, because the theme of a social entity defining its own destiny seems to be front and center. "

You're spot-on, and it's not something that most readers have seemed to have noticed. 20th Century Boys is actually a political statement, albeit in pop form. Urasawa has said as much in an interview: as much as it is a love letter to his childhood, it is also a letter to the new generations about their relationship to Japan's recent cultural past and their responsibilities for the future. I can't say too much more without potentially spoiling things.

As further evidence that Urasawa is interested in post WWII reconstruction in Japan, Urasawa's current manga series, Billy Bat, is heavily centered around reverberations from Japan's post-WW II reconstruction through world history via a really bizarre and surreal supernatural entity (the eponymous "Billy Bat").

I very much look forward to reading your further thoughts on the series. I think the cartoony art style may grow on you. The plasticity of the faces allows Urasawa to depict an exceptional range of emotional responses with surprising realism and expressiveness. It really works for him, more so than burdening them with further detail probably would have (at least, considering the schedule he had to work on as a mangaka while it was serialized on a bi-weekly basis).

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Thanks for the additional insight, this is really all new territory for me as I've avoided reading reviews or doing too much additional research to skew my thoughts, so hearing feedback like this is very interesting.

20th Century Boys as "pop political statement" is a pefect snapshot to describe the vibe, and a nice summary of why I feel I was drawn to the series. It could easily be dismissed as young person's adventure story, but it's filled with adult aspirations for the future.

I'm totally hooked.

At 10:10 PM, Blogger Nicole Breeze said...

I just finished another book that read as if it was a holocaust cast back that the author just three in some magical elements to make it more marketable to young readers. Now I wonder if this is a growing trend.


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